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What’s “cyberinfrastructure”?

March 24th, 2008 by dwentworth

One of the biggest challenges we face at Science Commons is explaining what we do — and, much more important, why it matters.

To that end, we are publishing a series of posts to bring more clarity to the terms and phrases we use. To make sure these posts are truly useful, we’ll be asking for your feedback. Got questions? Criticism? We hope you’ll send us an email or add your comments to the post. (Note: the definitions in these posts aren’t meant to be formal; they’re aimed at sparking discussion and helping more people understand our work.)

The first time out, we took on open source knowledge management. This time, we’re tackling “cyberinfrastructure.”

According to the National Science Foundation, cyberinfrastructure is “like the physical infrastructure of roads, bridges, power grids, telephone lines and water systems that support modern society,” but “refers to the distributed computer, information and communication technologies combined with the personnel and integrating components that provide a long-term platform to empower the modern scientific research endeavor.” (People in other countries use different terms for roughly the same concept; in the UK and Australia, for instance, cyberinfrastructure is referred to as “e-science” and “e-research,” respectively.)

It’s important to note that cyberinfrastructure is distinct from the Internet, which is only one of the elements that it comprises.

To understand the difference, consider the insightful piece that Alice Park of TIME wrote last year on why the promising new vaccine for AIDS failed, which looks beyond biological factors to examine the state of scientific research as a whole. Writes Park, “Most research occurs in isolation; there’s little coordination among labs and no network through which data can be shared, making it difficult for scientists to learn from each other’s missteps” (emphasis, mine). She goes on to quote Dr. Alan Bernstein of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, who describes science as an “iterative process” where, regrettably, “there isn’t a lot of iteration going on.”

Of course, there is a network that we can use for sharing scientific data: the Internet. What’s missing here is infrastructure — but not in the purely technical sense. We need more than computers, software, routers and fiber to share scientific information more efficiently; we need a legal and policy infrastructure that supports (and better yet, rewards) sharing.

At Science Commons, we use the term “cyberinfrastructure” — and more often, “collaborative infrastructure” — in this broader sense. Elements of an infrastructure can include everything from software and web protocols to licensing regimes and development policies. Science Commons is working to facilitate the emergence of an open, decentralized infrastructure designed to foster knowledge re-use and discovery — one that can be implemented in a way that respects the autonomy of each collaborator. We believe that this approach holds the most promise as we continue the transition from a world where scientific research is carried out by large teams with supercomputers to a world where small teams — perhaps even individuals — can effectively use the network to find, analyze and build on one another’s data.

If you’d like to learn more about what we’re doing, you’ll find details in Cyberinfrastructure for Knowledge Sharing, a CTWatch Quarterly piece by our own John Wilbanks If you have questions, send us an email. We’d love to hear from you.

3 Responses

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